Talking to W. Kamau Bell About ‘Totally Biased,’ Calls From Chris Rock, and Becoming a Part of the Political Conversation
In the span of a few years, FX has done a lot for TV comedy. Four years ago, the network’s only sitcom was the cult hit It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia; these days, it boasts the racy, animated Archer, the improvised sports show The League, and of course, the be all and end all of TV comedy in Louie.
Now the network is venturing into the notoriously difficult world of late night with the Chris Rock-produced Totally Biased. The show’s host, self-described “unfamous” comedian W. Kamau Bell, established himself touring his one-man show The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour.
I caught up with Kamau the day after the show’s premiere (and premiere party) to discuss opinion-based comedy, phone calls with Chris Rock, and being the black Seth Rogen.
So how are you feeling after last night?
I felt like the whole thing was like half my wedding. Like, being at a wedding where you don’t have somebody who’s going through the same thing. So I’m a little bit sleepy today, but also we have a meeting in an hour to talk about next week’s show. [Laughs] That’s what you have to remember. We’re not doing a show one time and then celebrating. We have five more at least to do, and hopefully many, many, many more.
Can you explain to me a bit how the show came about?
Sure. I have a solo show that I started doing in 2007 that is basically a mix of stand-up and video footage, pictures, facts and figures, where I try to end racism in about an hour. We had a promotion where if you brought a friend of a different race, you got in two-for-one.
I took it to LA and met Chuck Sklar, who is now the executive producer and head writer of Totally Biased. He called me the next day, like, “You’re gonna have a TV show.” And I was like, “Whatever, LA guy. That’s why I live in the Bay Area, so I don’t have to hear this nonsense.”
And Chuck has worked with Chris for years. I knew he knew Chris, but I also know other people who know Chris, because when you’re in comedy for awhile, you start to be, like, one or two degrees of separation. But I’d never met Chris. I’d seen Chris live but paid for a ticket, you know? I didn’t feel any closer to Chris than I felt to Santa Claus.
Chuck apparently told Chris about me. Then I brought my show to New York in October 2010, and after the show, Chris walked backstage. I didn’t know he’d even been there. He said, “Yeah, you’re funny.” And I was like, “Thanks.” And then he sort of disappeared like he was in Harry Potter. [Laughs] And then a couple months later I got a phone call from an unlisted number and it was Chris Rock.
Of course he has an unlisted number. That’s awesome.
Of course he does, and that’s why, when he first said, “It’s Chris Rock,” – I had told all my friends that Chris Rock had come to the show – and I was like, oh this is Jeremy being an asshole. And I said, “No it’s not.” And that’s when he turned into, like, the Chris Rock we see on TV. He’s like, “Don’t be the guy who doesn’t believe it’s me, then I’m sitting on Jay Leno talking about how I tried to help this dude out…” And I was like, “Oh my God. This is completely Chris Rock.”
And he said, “I want to do a show with you. Unfamous black guys never get TV shows. Unfamous white guys get TV shows all the time, but you’re gonna need my help.”
So do you see Totally Biased as an extension of your solo show, or do you think of it as like a totally different chapter?
Well, it’s funny. There was a point at which we talked about calling it The Bell Curve. But I felt like, this is so different. And also nobody knows my name, so that seemed stupid. [Laughs] I felt like it’s so totally different than my solo show that I don’t want to confuse it. But then, as we’ve gotten closer to it, this is completely an extension of my solo show.
The Bell Curve was just a comedic exploration of racism in America, and all that means is that you pull in various sources. There’s a little bit of it that’s informational, but the information is presented in a funny way. And also, I have a stake in the information, so I’m not just making fun of things. I actually care about the thing, and I have sort of rules for how I’m gonna make fun of things. I’m not gonna do a piece about stop-and-frisk that makes it look like I think that the issue is funny, even if we make fun out of the issues.
So, I think in that sense it’s very much an extension of the solo show, but I didn’t really know it was gonna be that until we got deep into it.
Where there any other TV shows that influenced you?
Sort of on a basic level, the Chris Rock HBO show is inspirational. Because when he got that show, even though that was a late night talk show, it felt like it was Chris’s perspective. You don’t know what Jay Leno thinks about anything. I think he does that on purpose. Jimmy Fallon’s got a great show, but he’s just making jokes of the news. Chris’s show felt like it was an extension of his stand-up act.
So that’s one thing. But then, there’s a style of late night comedy show now, from Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, [Stephen] Colbert – and all those three dudes are geniuses – it’s like an opinion-based comedy talk show. I want to be another voice in that realm. Currently it’s those three dudes and they’re all great, but I just feel like there’s room for more.
I feel like you’re the first new voice to enter the realm of TV political comedy in several years. Do you feel a pressure to bring something new to that arena?
No, I feel a pressure to make sure I’m doing it the way that I want it done. The biggest pressure is the internal. I think there’s opportunities, constantly, to make a million little decisions that are only little teeny tiny decisions, but then at the end of the day [they] add up. And you’re like, “How did I end up in a tuxedo, suspended over an Olympic-size swimming pool while I throw darts at Condoleezza Rice’s face?” Although that sounds hilarious.
Yeah, I’d watch that.
But where you go, this isn’t what I had in mind. Ultimately the pressure comes from inside. And FX has been very clear. Whenever we ask them what input they want to give to the show, they’re like, “We just want you to make a good show. We know what you do, we saw the pilot, we’ve seen your stand-up. Just do that on TV.”
Are there any topics you were really looking forward to talking about?
I’m glad that we’re on during the election season because I would like to put my voice into that national discussion the way that those shows I mentioned are part of the national discussion. Like you turn on MSNBC and they’re like, “Here’s what Jon Stewart said last night.” So I hope to become a part of that discussion too. On some level, be a part of making sure that evil doesn’t win.
I was really excited last night to talk about stop-and-frisk in our first show. I felt like nothing we did last night felt like [it was] something that one of these other shows could do. And that doesn’t mean we’re better than them, it just means that I feel like, right now, in the late night talk show format, I sort of have that area to myself.
For example, I’m excited to talk about George Zimmerman. I can’t wait for him to be back in the news again. Because I got a lot to say. [Laughs] That’s just like, it’s right down my wheelhouse.
Are there any major stories or issues that you feel are overlooked in the media?
It’s not even overlooked. It’s just the angles in which those things are covered. I don’t know if anybody else has done stop-and-frisk in a late night talk show format. But I feel like that’s an issue that, even if somebody else has talked about it, because I’m a black man, it’s automatically going to be different.
There’s other things. Like, I come from San Francisco, so you’re used to having conversations about marriage equality and – this where is the title comes into it – if I’m gonna talk about that, I’m gonna be totally biased about it. I’m not gonna say, well on the one hand this and the other hand this.
We’re working on a thing about voter fraud right now. That affects black people more than it affects anybody else, when they purge the voter roles. And so even if these other shows talk about voter fraud, because I’m gonna do it from the [angle] that this affects me and the people who look like me – it just, it becomes a different thing.
You had Chris on as your first guest, and you interviewed Baratunde Thurston at your rehearsal show. Are you planning to interview comics every week?
No no no. With Baratunde, it was more like, we want to try this interview out, and let’s give Kamau the easiest interview possible. [Laughs] We’re friends and he likes to talk. We didn’t want to have to put me down with, like, Glenn Beck. I mean, I’d love to interview Glenn Beck, but that whole thing was [to put as little] pressure on me as possible.
And then with Chris, we were trying to find a guest and we were scrambling, because we had somebody booked and then that person fell out. Every now and again, someone was like, well if worst comes to worst we can interview Chris. And at some point, it was like, how is that worst coming to worst? [Laughs] It all sort of occurred to us, as we got closer. Chris is gonna be here, he’s waist-deep in the show, and he’s taking time off from his busy schedule to be here. And he was happy to do it. It was great. I mean, he is, [sighs] he could only be more involved in the show if it was Totally Biased with Chris Rock. Which FX has told me they don’t want it to be, but I don’t know if I believe them.
Do you know who your other guests will be?
Well, it’s hard to get guests when you’re a new show, I’m finding, especially when you have a new show with a guy who’s not famous. But we believe that once we get the show up and people see it, it’ll be a little bit easier to book people.
We have Rachel Maddow saying she wants to come do it next week. And I feel like if we go Chris Rock to Rachel Maddow, and the public sees me being able to handle both of those two disparate poles of the left [laughs], I feel like we will be able to confirm more people.
I want to talk to a black Republican so I think we have Robert Traynham, who used to be [Rick] Santorum’s spokesperson, who’s black and gay and Republican, which I would like to know how that works. And not to yell at him, just to really understand.
Speaking of Chris, you’ve been compared to him a lot, especially with his involvement in this show. How do you handle having your name in the same sentence as Chris Rock’s in every single article that’s written about you?
It’s funny. I guess it’s a natural comparison because he’s producing the show, but I don’t think Chris Rock went out looking for Chris Rock Jr. I think he saw me and was like, “I feel like that guy has something to offer but he’s not gonna get it if I don’t help him.” I think that, to compare me directly against Chris Rock is, like, I’m gonna lose that comparison every time. The thing he does, he does better than anybody else has done it in the history of doing that thing.
I feel like I’m just trying to get my voice together, and it’s never gonna end up looking like Chris Rock’s. Certainly, before I ever met him, he was very inspirational to me. You know, some people who are old enough remember the moon landing. I remember Bring the Pain.
So I certainly was inspired by him but I don’t think anybody would ever see us perform and [think we’re] exactly alike. And I think anybody’s who’s trying to force that comparison is doing both of us a disservice.
You’ve toured your solo show for five years now. What kinds of changes have you seen during that time?
The show really was born out of a lot of weird celebrity racism, from Don Imus and Michael Richards and Dog the Bounty Hunter and Rosie O’Donnell. It was really about celebrity racism and how people thought racism was over but racism is making a comeback.
And then, once we got up and running, this black guy, this black senator from Illinois started running for president. At some point, the show got sort of taken over by the politics of him running for president and by America’s response to him. The show was probably 60 percent about the election. It was really probably more political than I’ve ever been in my life, because it was such an interesting time.
So through doing the show and then taking pieces of the show into my stand-up act, that’s when people started to regard me as a political comedian, and that’s what brought me into the world of political comedy. And I sort of came in through the back door. I didn’t talk about Bush when he was in office and when the country eventually goes back to the white man’s rule, I may not talk about it was much anymore then. [Laughs]
Since the show last night, I’ve heard several people say that you remind them of Seth Rogen. Do you get that a lot?
Yeah, not until recently. Someone said it to me once, like a year ago, and I thought, “That one person’s crazy.” And it’s sort of picking up some steam. And no offense to Seth Rogen, but when I hear that, that means I need to start going back to the gym. [Laughs]
He’s got that Jewfro and I’ve got my genuine Afro, and we both wear glasses and I don’t know. I just feel like people have to put you in a category, and I think I’m getting black Seth Rogen, which is actually totally fine with me. Seth Rogen has a successful career in Hollywood. Hopefully we can do a movie someday together, where we do something about ending racism and also getting high.
Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell airs Thursday nights at 11 ET on FX.